How to Recover a Lost Tax Return

A lost tax return may be inconsequential to you … until you need it. An unexpected move to a new home may send you scrambling to find your tax return as proof of income for your lender or landlord. Or if you decide to go back to school to widen your career options, you may need a copy of your tax return to submit with student loan documents. And in the unfortunate event you need to substantiate your income history for a legal matter, you’ll have to produce copies of your tax returns for the previous year or even for the past three years. Regardless of the reason your lost tax return went missing, you can stop turning your home or office upside-down in your search for it and look to other sources to recover it.

Tip

Your tax preparer may be the quickest source of recovering your lost income tax return, but the IRS is a solid backup source for retrieving this information.

Recovering Lost Income Tax Returns

If a tax preparer filed your return, you may not know that the preparer likely created an online account for you so that you could access a copy of your filed return online. If you’re like most people, you find it nearly impossible to remember a username and password for an account that you’ve never accessed. But if you contact your tax preparer, she can walk you through the steps of retrieving your tax return information online. As an option, particularly if you do not have a computer to view your tax return or a printer to print your return, ask your tax preparer if she will make a copy for you. By law, professional tax preparers must retain copies of filed tax returns for a minimum of three years. You should not have to pay a fee to access your online account, but if your tax preparer prints a copy for you, you may have to pay a copying and/or administrative fee for this service.

Visit the IRS Online

If a call or visit to your tax preparer leaves you empty-handed, your next best option is to contact the IRS. If you visit IRS.gov/transcripts, you’ll find an automated “Get Transcript” option with two choices for recovering your lost tax return – online or by mail. Each choice requires you to register and create a free account for which you provide certain information to verify your identity. Once you’ve registered and the IRS verifies you, you’ll be able to access your tax return in transcript form.

An IRS Tax Transcript

Your tax transcript from the IRS will have a different look from a traditional paper tax return because it’s not a photocopy, which is an exact duplicate. Instead, a transcript summarizes the information that you filed with your tax return. You don’t have to pay for certain types of tax transcripts – the IRS provides copies that are free of charge, regardless of whether you access the information online or the IRS mails a transcript to you. You can still get an exact photocopy if that’s what you prefer, but the IRS does charge a fee for this service.

Get IRS Transcript Online

Create your account at IRS.gov/transcripts by providing your name, date of birth, Social Security number, filing status and the mailing address you provided on your most recent tax return. The IRS also requires verification of your identity in the form of an account number from your credit card, mortgage or car loan, home equity loan or line of credit. You’ll also need to have your own mobile phone account and access to your email account. Once you’ve set everything up through your new IRS online account, you’ll be able to recover your lost tax return information in the form of a tax transcript. You’ll also be able to download or print your transcript.

Get IRS Transcript by Mail

If you want your IRS transcript mailed to you, you’ll still create an account online, but you don’t have to provide as much information as you do when accessing your transcript online. You’ll only have to give your Social Security number or Individual Tax Identification number, date of birth and the mailing address you provided on your most recent tax return. After you enter this information into the IRS “Get Transcript” tool, the IRS will send your tax transcript through the mail, which typically takes five to 10 calendar days to reach you. If you’d rather not provide your personal information online, you can download Form 4506-T (Request for Transcript of Tax Return) from IRS.gov. Complete the form, and mail or fax it to the IRS at the address provided on the form. The IRS will send your free tax transcript by return mail.

Get IRS Transcript by Phone

You can also get a transcript by calling the IRS at 1-800-908-9946. Simply follow the prompts to order the transcript you need. From the time the IRS receives your request, it typically takes five to 10 days for you to receive your transcript.

Get a Photocopy

If you need an exact copy of your tax return, visit IRS.gov and download Form 4506 (Request for Copy of Tax Return). After completing the form, mail it to the IRS (with a $50 check or money order for each tax return you need) to the address listed on the form. You’ll obviously save this $50 fee if your tax preparer will make copies for you at a reduced rate.

Types of IRS Transcripts

A transcript isn’t a one-size-fits-all document. Taxpayers who want to recover a lost tax return have different reasons for needing this information. The IRS offers these types of transcripts that you can get at no charge:

  • Tax return transcript – If you need the most comprehensive summary of your tax return, you may want to order the tax return transcript. This transcript includes your adjusted gross income (AGI) and all the schedules and forms that you submitted with your original tax return. It’s typically the transcript that you’ll use if you’re applying for a mortgage loan or student loan and need to verify your income. You’ll have access to the current year’s tax return as well as returns you filed during the past three years for this tax return transcript. If you filed any changes to your original return, the tax return transcript will not include these changes. 
  • Tax account transcript – This transcript is available for tax returns you filed during the past 10 years if you use the “Get Transcript Online” tool or if you request the transcript using IRS Form 4506-T. But if you request a transcript by mail or phone, you can only get the current year’s tax return plus returns from the prior three years. The tax account transcript includes your AGI, taxable income and marital status. It also includes changes, if any, that you made to your original tax return.
  • Record of account transcript – When taxpayers are unsure of which transcript they need, the IRS recommends they order the record of account transcript. This transcript combines the data from two tax transcripts – the tax return transcript and the tax account transcript – into one comprehensive transcript. The record of account transcript is available for the current year’s return in addition to your returns from the past three years.
  • Wage and income transcript – This transcript includes the data from information returns such as your W-2, 1099, 1098 and Form 5498 (IRA Contribution Information). Although you’ll be able to request the current tax year’s transcript, this information may not be available until July of the current year. 
  • Verification of nonfiling letter – If you need to provide confirmation that you did not file IRS Forms 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ for the current tax year as well as the past three years, the IRS will provide a verification of nonfiling letter. The IRS will not, however, confirm whether you were required to file a return for the year in question.

Tip

Beginning with the 2019 tax year (for tax returns you'll file in 2020), the IRS will have a streamlined Form 1040, which will incorporate the current Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ. For the 2018 tax year, you'll still have three separate tax returns from which to choose.

Send to a Third Party

If push is coming to shove for you to produce a lost tax return – for example, if you need to qualify for a mortgage loan and the closing date is fast approaching – you can order a transcript and request that the IRS send it directly to a third party. Simply complete a copy of IRS Form 4506-T and mail it to the IRS at the address listed on the form.

You can also order a copy of your tax return and request that the IRS send it directly to a third party. Complete a copy of Form 4506, which you'll find at IRS.gov, and mail it to the IRS at the address listed on this form.

The IRS requires your signature to authorize these requests, which is why you have to send a paper copy of each of these forms through the mail. Be sure to enter the third party’s name, address and telephone number on Line 5 of each form. When you authorize the IRS to send this information to a third party, it’s beyond the authority of the IRS to mandate what the third party does with your information.

Contact the Social Security Administration

If you're trying to get a copy of your missing tax return for a Social Security-related reason, you also have the option of going straight to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Although the SSA does not provide copies of your Forms 1040, it does provide copies of your past W-2s (going back to 1978). As long as you need these copies for an SSA issue, there is no charge. But if you're requesting the copies for reasons that include filing your tax returns, verifying your income to receive workers' compensation benefits or establishing residency, you'll have to pay a fee of $86 for each W-2 that you need.

Make your request in writing to the Office of Central Operations, Office of Earnings and International Operations, Division of Earnings and Business Services, P. O. Box 33003, Baltimore, MD, 21290-3003. Include the reason for your request, the year(s) that you need copies of your W-2s, your name as it appears on your Social Security card, your mailing address and your daytime telephone number.

If you do not specify the reason for your request, the SSA will assume you need the W-2 copies for reasons other than Social Security purposes, which means you'll have to include a payment of $86 per W-2 request. The SSA accepts checks and money orders, but if you prefer paying by credit card, complete Form 714 from SSA.gov and include this form with your written request.

Tip

  • Transcripts are available for the current tax year and the three previous years. You can get photocopies of the actual tax return for the current tax period plus the previous six years.

About the Author

Victoria Lee Blackstone was formerly with Freddie Mac’s mortgage acquisition department, where she funded multi-million-dollar loan pools for primary lending institutions, worked on a mortgage fraud task force, and wrote the convertible ARM section of the company’s policies and procedures manual. Blackstone is also a horticulturist and a professional writer (www.VictoriaLee.me) who has authored research-based scientific/technical papers, horticultural articles, and magazine and newspaper columns.


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